Reposted: The Meaning of Life….a Ghost Story

(It’s that time of year again…)

I assume that almost everyone has one or two memorable cemetery experiences. When we are little we get taken to cemeteries at times of sadness or solemnity and, while it looks like a park it obviously isn’t a fun place. It’s sort of a morbid thought but there is a headstone with my name on it awaiting my arrival in the family cemetery. In a way it is also a little comforting. I recall going to a cemetery as a young child for the burial of one of my dad’s uncles – somebody I never knew existed until we got that late night phone call from Sainte Genevieve. My dad would get these calls from time to time. It would be a short and hushed conversation on the telephone and then he would hang up and announce that Sainte Genevieve called and Uncle so-and-so had died. We had a direct phone line to Sainte Genevieve (how cool was that?) but we very rarely got a happy phone call. She was usually the bearer of bad news. My brother was older and knew what was going on and probably knew who made the call but it was always “Sainte Genevieve called.”  It took me a while to learn that Sainte Genevieve was a place. We had family there but we called it “Ste. Gen” when we would go there in happier times to visit.

lorimer cem2Cemeteries are places where people create monuments or markers representing how they want to be remembered after they are gone or, more often, how others want them to be remembered. This is an intentional relic of a person’s existence. The ruins at Pompeii or Tikal or Mesa Verde are unintentional relics of someone’s existence. I find them both to be interesting. But what about those folks in unmarked graves? My Irish immigrant ancestors are buried two to a hole in unmarked graves in the same cemetery that holds Tennessee Williams, William Tecumseh Sherman, Dred Scott, Kate Chopin and Father De Smet. My ancestors left behind lots of grieving relatives but none of them had the resources to mark the graves.

I went to college in a very old town with a very old cemetery on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River. There were French folks buried there – the ones that settled the place. There were rows of unmarked graves identifiable only as a faint dimple in the grass. I recall one section of about forty unmarked graves that were known to be the victims of a horrific steamboat wreck. Only their date of death was known.

As college students with time on our hands and looking for something to do we would make our way to the old cemetery and just ponder the meaning of life. We usually did this at night and with a few six-packs. One can come close to discovering the meaning of life at night in a spooky cemetery with a few six-packs surrounded by dead people. We were not disrespectful or up to mischief, we were just under age. We had to be careful where we stepped. The cemetery was riddled with large holes where the earth had subsided or local ground hogs had burrowed into some of the graves. The tree roots would reach out and grab your feet if you weren’t careful.

One of our group was a direct descendant of the old French trader who founded the town. He even carried his surname. The trader’s wife’s grave was the oldest…not counting the Indians. We avoided that part of the cemetery.

lorimer cemOn one of these excursions we came across a woman’s headstone that made us stop in our tracks. The stone was by itself – not in a family group. It gave her name followed by the word “Spinster” and her date of birth: October 31, 1815 (yes, Halloween), and her date of death: December 31, 1899. The poor woman lived 85 years and almost made it to 1900 but instead, somebody decided to label her as “Spinster” and leave her there by herself. That’s how they wanted her to be remembered. She was certainly on our minds when we pondered the meaning of life that night. The next day, probably a Saturday or Sunday, we went back and made a charcoal rubbing of her headstone and another headstone we found of a Revolutionary War soldier. We taped the headstone rubbings up on the dorm room wall…for some reason. Not as a trophy but sort of a cautionary remembrance.

After a while, things started happening…weird things (of course). Unseen visitors were rearranging things…moving things from place to place. One of the guys was awakened during the night when he felt someone sit on his bed…there was no one there. Other things that were hanging on the wall fell to the floor but not the headstone rubbings. Finally somebody saw the figure of a woman come out of the dorm room closet and walk across the room and disappear. This was at night but she was visible with an eerie glow. That was enough. She came down off the wall and the old soldier did too, just to be on the safe side. Was it just the power of suggestion? Once one odd thing happened, did we imagine the other occurrences? When the old woman’s headstone rubbing came down the strange occurrences stopped. This was followed by a self-imposed silence on the entire topic. I don’t recall it being discussed or mutually agreed to…just that none of us felt comfortable talking about it. We stopped going to the cemetery at night after that. We found other ways to explore the meaning of life. When we all went our separate ways after college we left behind a well hidden time capsule that included an account of the cemetery adventure and the subsequent occurrences.

Some years later I happened to meet a younger alumnus of my Alma Mater who happened to live on the same floor of the same dorm building about three or four years after I graduated. Our time capsule had been found — we were not as clever as we thought. I’ve never followed it up but my acquaintance said that there were still a few unexplained events taking place. The power of suggestion is alive and well….or perhaps it’s the “Spinster”.

(Revised and reposted — from the original posted on The Red Room)

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Tumulus

Today is Star Wars Day and tomorrow is Cinco de Mayo and sandwiched in between, from sunset to sunset, is Holocaust Remembrance Day. We are an odd bunch. We commemorate those who sacrificed their lives in war and, as if that isn’t enough, we invent make-believe wars and then commemorate them as well. And then we do it all over again — It must all be a genetic trait.

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Ireland 3000 BC

We really don’t need to make up war stories or invent enemies or heros. We have plenty to go around. There is very little of our scarred and sodden planet that is not sprinkled with blood.

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Sarajevo

We have always been fond of building earth and stone monuments to our dead heros or the fallen martyrs. War and battlefields bring out the builder in us. That helps us remember what we were — or what “they” were.

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Vietnam Memorial

What happens when we run out of stone to build memorials? Will we put an end to the warfare? We have accepted the industrialization of killing as part of our being. That’s what we do even though we say “Never Again”.

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Holocaust – Berlin

We are nothing if not a resourceful kind of being. Look how far we’ve come. We used to throw rocks and sticks. We have come so far — now we can incinerate cities or surgically remove unwanted foes anonymously. Two million here, six million there….the shear numbers render it all impersonal and anonymous. No one person can be responsible. But then we go back to the earth and stone and build a memorial.

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Cambodia

Sometimes we build war memorials and then tip-toe around them while we fight more wars generations later in the same place.  It doesn’t seem to matter. Why do we even bother? We turn a blind eye to the past and stumble forward and do it all again.  People blame this on religion or ideology or racism but it has to be some sort of genetic flaw.

Tumulus waterloo
Battle of Waterloo

Erin Go Bragh!

So, the Priest came to the house. They were fearful that he would be too late but he made it. The babe had been born in the night and was fading quickly away. She was not expected to make it through the day. Can you christen an infant and give the last rites all at once? He christened her Sara and made a side note in his book that the parents, Miles McSweeney and Ellen Scollard were, in fact, married. Little Sara made it through the day and the next night. She hung on for the next day and picked up some color. The first week was touch and go but things looked a little better by then. Sara had a older sister, Mary, who was eight…old enough to help her mother. The two older brothers, Edward and Michael, were three and seven and into everything. Another baby, Miles, had died at nine months. There were others in the cemetery and more to come.

bridgetThe McSweeney’s lived in Kerry Patch, an Irish ‘ghetto’ on the north side of St. Louis clustered around St. Bridget of Erin, the Roman Catholic parish church. The place was known for two things, mostly: Irish gangs and tuberculosis. It was an unhealthy place; no wonder the babies died. But the McSweeney children had the benefit of grandparents….it was a growing and shrinking extended family that sometimes all lived under one roof.

Ellen McSweeney, the matriarch, ran a small grocery store left to her by her sainted husband, Edmund, who had died of pneumonia back in 1869. Both she and Edmund came over from Ireland but met and married in St. Louis at St. Francis Xavier…the university church, don’t you know.  Ellen had been a Moran up until the time she married and she liked spelling “McSweeney” as “MacSweeney” — there was a little money there, somewhere.  Her son, Miles, was the only surviving child…the others succumbed to the smallpox epidemic in 1870, just a few months after their father. Ellen was a strong willed woman and protective — nothing bad was going to happen to her son, Miles, who she called Jerry on occasion.

The Scollards, Michael and Mary, came to St. Louis from Tralee in Kerry in 1876. They were married in Kerry and Mary was born a Moran…probable kin to Ellen McSweeney. They came with three mostly grown children, Ellen, Jeremiah and Thomas. They left another three – older and with families of their own – back in Tralee. Thomas was the youngest but he could work. Jeremiah had a trade…he was a blacksmith. Michael, the father was a day laborer at 70 and died in 1881. Thomas followed him in 1887, both buried in the same unmarked grave in Calvary Cemetery. They were in good company and not far from Father DeSmet and Dred Scott. General Sherman and Kate Chopin would soon be there too, and still later (for the love of God!) Tennessee Williams. There were other Scollards there as well. Tuberculosis was the family affliction.

Baby Sara came to be known as Sadie and Sadie she stayed. There was another brother, Myles, born in 1892 to the delight of six year old Sadie. The father, Miles, was unpredictable and unreliable and a mother’s boy. Some years he lived separately with his mother while the rest lived at the grocery store. He had a “thing” for his cousin, Nellie Moran, who worked as a housekeeper for the old lady. Sometimes Miles would go to New York City for a while and then come back.

The family – Ellen and her five children – lived on in Kerry Patch. Ellen developed a cough and grew weaker, finally dying in 1894. Miles was nowhere to be found. Mary, the eldest girl, was sixteen and took on the parenting role as best she could. Eventually little Sadie, now eight, went to a convent but her older brothers would liberate her every time and so then she went to a orphanage in Little Falls, New York.  Why New York? I guess the father, Miles, had a hand in that decision…and it was too far for the brothers to stage a rescue.  She later was in a Methodist Orphanage outside Chicago. The two children were separated…young Myles ended up in St. Joseph’s Male Orphan Asylum  by 1900.

Years passed. The two older brothers became minor gang members in Eagan’s Rats who were always at war with The Hogans. Edward served time in the workhouse but later married and tried to become semi-respectable by becoming a constable in Mike Kinney’s magistrate court. Politics and Irish gangs were closely related. It didn’t last long as he died at age 26 “after a lingering illness”. (Mike Kinney went on to become the longest serving state senator in Missouri history). Brother Michael never married and was sometimes the only one arrested when the other gang members got away. He would make a court appearance in Judge Kinney’s court. Michael died at 27 of the family affliction and shares a grave with Edward at Calvary Cemetery.

KEN7
Sadie and the kids

Sadie was back in St. Louis around the time of the World’s Fair in 1904 and worked as a house maid, Downton Abbey style, in the great homes of the rich and famous. Being an “Irish” maid came naturally. St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the country at the time and there were opportunities for domestic servants. Two years later she met a man, Charles Miller, who was a shoe worker in one of the many shoe factories in town. He was a strong union man – they boarded a trolley car and made an excursion to the little town of St. Charles, across the Missouri River, and were married on Labor Day of 1906. He got her away from Kerry Patch and mostly away from domestic work – although she took in washing and ironing when times were tough. His family, in upstate New York, was staunch Protestants and descended from Huguenot stock. The idea of marrying an Irish Catholic was unthinkable. The two of them were left to themselves for the most part and they seemed to thrive on that. They acquired a house on the western edge of St. Louis. Babies arrived, four in all, including my mom in 1910. They all survived.

 

KEN3a
Grampa on the left

I never met my grandfather as he died on Christmas Eve in 1941. Sadie worked in various hotels as a cook during the 1940s. She had a fiery Irish temper and would quit a job in the morning, walk down the street and be hired at another hotel, quit that job after lunch and go back to the first place and be welcomed with open arms. She later took in ironing at home. I remember she had a huge (to me) ironing steam press with rollers in the dining room of the family house. She died when I was four but I have many memories of her. We lived together in the old house for a few years. My older brother would sneak in and out the upstairs bedroom window….a nine year old with things to do and people to see. She met him one day coming across the roof and nailed the window shut with him on the outside. I recall another day when Senator Kinney came to call. He was a dapper man and they greeted as old Kerry Patch friends. I was under foot and was sent away. Her temper was always there and she would leave home in a snit and no one knew where she went until she would eventually turn up at my aunt’s house and stay for a few days. All would be forgiven and she would be back home again as usual.

 

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stlouispatina.com

Kerry Patch is gone and they are tearing down St. Bridget of Erin church as I write this. Almost nothing is left.

 

So it’s Erin go Bragh – Ireland Forever – on this St. Patrick’s Day. No time for tears. I will soon raise a glass (a toast to Sadie!) and taste some corned beef and cabbage before this day is out.

Reposted: The Meaning of Life….a Ghost Story

I assume that almost everyone has one or two memorable cemetery experiences. When we are little we get taken to cemeteries at times of sadness or solemnity and, while it looks like a park it obviously isn’t a fun place. It’s sort of a morbid thought but there is a headstone with my name on it awaiting my arrival in the family cemetery. In a way it is also a little comforting. I recall going to a cemetery as a young child for the burial of one of my dad’s uncles – somebody I never knew existed until we got that late night phone call from Sainte Genevieve. My dad would get these calls from time to time. It would be a short and hushed conversation on the telephone and then he would hang up and announce that Sainte Genevieve called and Uncle so-and-so had died. We had a direct phone line to Sainte Genevieve (how cool was that?) but we very rarely got a happy phone call. She was usually the bearer of bad news. My brother was older and knew what was going on and probably knew who made the call but it was always “Sainte Genevieve called.”  It took me a while to learn that Sainte Genevieve was a place. We had family there but we called it “Ste. Gen” when we would go there in happier times to visit.

lorimer cem2Cemeteries are places where people create monuments or markers representing how they want to be remembered after they are gone or, more often, how others want them to be remembered. This is an intentional relic of a person’s existence. The ruins at Pompeii or Tikal or Mesa Verde are unintentional relics of someone’s existence. I find them both to be interesting. But what about those folks in unmarked graves? My Irish immigrant ancestors are buried two to a hole in unmarked graves in the same cemetery that holds Tennessee Williams, William Tecumseh Sherman, Dred Scott, Kate Chopin and Father De Smet. My ancestors left behind lots of grieving relatives but none of them had the resources to mark the graves.

I went to college in a very old town with a very old cemetery on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River. There were French folks buried there – the ones that settled the place. There were rows of unmarked graves identifiable only as a faint dimple in the grass. I recall one section of about forty unmarked graves that were known to be the victims of a horrific steamboat wreck. Only their date of death was known.

As college students with time on our hands and looking for something to do we would make our way to the old cemetery and just ponder the meaning of life. We usually did this at night and with a few six-packs. One can come close to discovering the meaning of life at night in a spooky cemetery with a few six-packs surrounded by dead people. We were not disrespectful or up to mischief, we were just under age. We had to be careful where we stepped. The cemetery was riddled with large holes where the earth had subsided or local ground hogs had burrowed into some of the graves. The tree roots would reach out and grab your feet if you weren’t careful.

One of our group was a direct descendant of the old French trader who founded the town. He even carried his surname. The trader’s wife’s grave was the oldest…not counting the Indians. We avoided that part of the cemetery.

lorimer cemOn one of these excursions we came across a woman’s headstone that made us stop in our tracks. The stone was by itself – not in a family group. It gave her name followed by the word “Spinster” and her date of birth: October 31, 1815 (yes, Halloween), and her date of death: December 31, 1899. The poor woman lived 85 years and almost made it to 1900 but instead, somebody decided to label her as “Spinster” and leave her there by herself. That’s how they wanted her to be remembered. She was certainly on our minds when we pondered the meaning of life that night. The next day, probably a Saturday or Sunday, we went back and made a charcoal rubbing of her headstone and another headstone we found of a Revolutionary War soldier. We taped the headstone rubbings up on the dorm room wall…for some reason. Not as a trophy but sort of a cautionary remembrance.

After a while, things started happening…weird things (of course). Unseen visitors were rearranging things…moving things from place to place. One of the guys was awakened during the night when he felt someone sit on his bed…there was no one there. Other things that were hanging on the wall fell to the floor but not the headstone rubbings. Finally somebody saw the figure of a woman come out of the dorm room closet and walk across the room and disappear. This was at night but she was visible with an eerie glow. That was enough. She came down off the wall and the old soldier did too, just to be on the safe side. Was it just the power of suggestion? Once one odd thing happened, did we imagine the other occurrences? When the old woman’s headstone rubbing came down the strange occurrences stopped. This was followed by a self-imposed silence on the entire topic. I don’t recall it being discussed or mutually agreed to…just that none of us felt comfortable talking about it. We stopped going to the cemetery at night after that. We found other ways to explore the meaning of life. When we all went our separate ways after college we left behind a well hidden time capsule that included an account of the cemetery adventure and the subsequent occurrences.

Some years later I happened to meet a younger alumnus of my Alma Mater who happened to live on the same floor of the same dorm building about three or four years after I graduated. Our time capsule had been found — we were not as clever as we thought. I’ve never followed it up but my acquaintance said that there were still a few unexplained events taking place. The power of suggestion is alive and well….or perhaps it’s the “Spinster”.

(Revised and reposted — from the original posted on The Red Room)

Letting Them Rest in Peace

westport battle
Battle of Westport

The last mortal casualty of the Civil War was laid to rest over 150 years ago.  Somewhere around 750,000 people died in that war. Most of the soldiers died from disease — for every three killed in combat there was another five who died from disease.  Many more were maimed for life.

There is a great deal of agitation and consternation over the future of the Confederate flag and what it actually stands for. To claim that the flag stands to memorialize and honor Confederate soldiers who died in a misguided and vain attempt to preserve slavery (yes, that’s what it was about in the south) is to, conversely, dishonor and minimize the efforts and sacrifice of Union soldiers who also died in the conflict in the struggle to preserve the Union and abolish slavery. Many soldiers’ lives were cut short even if they survived the war. My great-grandfather died from complications from a Civil War injury long after the war ended. Another relative suffered thirty years of pain with a war injury until he finally had his leg amputated in the  1890s.

The Confederate flag doesn’t stand for or serve the purpose that it was originally intended. It is now mostly a tool to symbolize obstructionism and white privilege. No matter what you think of it or it’s history, today it is the bigot’s flag. It was once vilified as “the traitor’s rag” and has evolved into the “bigot’s rag”.

Slavery and the Civil War were horrendous things in our history. I was born and raised in Missouri, a one-time slave state. The Civil War there was particularly brutal on all sides.  Slavery in Missouri was not as widely practiced as in the deep south but had a particular ugly aspect — one not much talked about.  Slave plantations in parts of Missouri were essentially stock farms where slaves were bred and then shipped south.  Slaves could not be imported into the United States after 1807 so there was a business side  to the “peculiar institution” — making baby slaves that could eventually be sold south to large agricultural plantations. I’m sure this went on all over the south but it is seldom talked about. Where do you think all those slaves came from?

The killing of the nine church members in Charleston is not directly related to the Confederate flag.  The murders are related to the mindset and bigotry that the flag represents.  The flag bolsters and fosters the hate and aggression that permeates the minds of too many people…not just in the south. That’s how the murders are connected.  You can see Confederate flag “do-rags” on bikers in California or any state. The flag decorates pick-up trucks in Michigan or Idaho or anywhere in the country. Six-year-olds wrapped in Chinese-made Confederate flag beach towels in Texas or Cape Cod don’t (yet) know what that symbol is about but others with them or seeing them do and it won’t be long before they figure it out.

It is time to grow up and put all of that behind us. This is not “political correctness” as right-wingers like to complain about. They don’t fly Nazi flags in military cemeteries in Germany. Put the flag in a museum — there is no place for the Confederate flag in public or government institutions or business…as in state flags or license plates.  It’s time we laid it all to rest.

The Meaning of Life — A Ghost Story

I assume that almost everyone has one or two memorable cemetery experiences. When we are little we get taken to cemeteries at times of sadness or solemnity and, while it looks like a park it obviously isn’t a fun place. It’s a morbid thought but there is a headstone with my name on it awaiting my arrival in the family cemetery.  I recall going to a cemetery as a young child for the burial of one of my dad’s uncles – somebody I never knew existed until we got that late night phone call from Sainte Genevieve. We very rarely got a happy phone call from Sainte Genevieve. She was usually the bearer of bad news. It took me a while to learn that Sainte Genevieve was a place.

lorimer cemCemeteries are places where people create monuments or markers representing how they want to be remembered after they are gone or, more often, how others want them to be remembered. This is an intentional relic of a person’s existence. The ruins at Pompeii or Tikal or Mesa Verde are unintentional relics of someone’s existence. I find them both to be interesting. But what about those folks in unmarked graves? My Irish immigrant ancestors are buried two to a hole in unmarked graves in the same cemetery that holds Tennessee Williams, William Tecumseh Sherman, Dred Scott, Kate Chopin and Father De Smet.  My ancestors left behind lots of grieving relatives but none of them had the resources to mark the graves.

I went to college in a very old town with a very old cemetery on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River. There were French folks buried there – the ones that settled the place. There were rows of unmarked graves identifiable only as a faint dimple in the grass. I recall one section of about forty unmarked graves that were known to be the victims of a horrific steamboat wreck. Only their date of death was known.

As college students with time on our hands and looking for something to do we would make our way to the cemetery and just ponder the meaning of life. We usually did this at night and with a few six-packs. One can come close to discovering the meaning of life at night in a spooky cemetery with a few six-packs surrounded by dead people. We were not disrespectful or up to mischief, we were just under age. We had to be careful where we stepped. The cemetery was riddled with large holes where the earth had subsided or local ground hogs had burrowed into some of the graves. The tree roots would reach out and grab your feet if you weren’t careful.

One of our group was a direct descendant of the old French trader who founded the town. His wife’s grave was the oldest…not counting the Indians. We avoided that part of the cemetery.

lorimer cem2On one of these excursions we came across a woman’s headstone that made us stop in our tracks. The stone was by itself – not in a family group. It gave her name followed by the word “Spinster” and her date of birth: October 31, 1815 (yes, Halloween), and her date of death: December 31, 1899. The poor woman lived 85 years and almost made it to 1900 but instead, somebody decided to label her as “Spinster” and leave her there by herself. That’s how they wanted her to be remembered.  She was certainly on our minds when we pondered the meaning of life that night. The next day, probably a Saturday or Sunday, we went back and made a charcoal rubbing of her headstone and another headstone we found of a Revolutionary War soldier. We taped the headstone rubbings up on the dorm room wall…for some reason. Not as a trophy but sort of a cautionary remembrance.

After a while, things started happening…weird things (of course). Unseen visitors were rearranging things…moving things from place to place. One of the guys was awakened during the night when he felt someone sit on his bed…there was no one there. Other things that were hanging on the wall fell to the floor but not the headstone rubbings. Finally somebody saw the figure of a young woman come out of the dorm room closet and walk across the room and disappear. This was at night but she was visible with an eerie glow. That was enough. She came down off the wall and the old soldier did too, just to be on the safe side. Was it just the power of suggestion? Once one odd thing happened, did we imagine the other occurrences? When the old woman’s headstone rubbing came down the strange occurrences stopped. This was followed by a self-imposed silence on the entire topic. I don’t recall it being discussed or mutually agreed to…just that none of us felt comfortable talking about it. We stopped going to the cemetery after that. We found other ways to explore the meaning of life. When we all went our separate ways after college we left behind a well hidden time capsule that included an account of the cemetery adventure and the subsequent occurrences.

Some years later I happened to meet an alumnus of my Alma Mater who happened to live on the same floor of the same dorm building about three or four years after I graduated.  Our time capsule had been found — we were not as clever as we thought.  I’ve never followed it up but my acquaintance said that there were still a few unexplained events taking place. The power of suggestion is alive and well….or perhaps it’s the “Spinster”.

(Revised from the original posted on The Red Room)